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ikaria, greece

e.W er more being t 10 Ikaria.
“i wanπ a wife,” vasilis giakas πells me πhrough πhe πranslator. ∏hen, as if to advertise the goods, he whips off his sweater, grabs a machete and starts whacking at tree branches to feed to his goats. “Are you married?” When I nod yes, he shakes his head as if I’ve been wasting his time. “When you return here,” he demands, “bring me a single woman. She must be tall, at least 150 centimeters [4-foot-11] and have dry-grass-colored hair, like you. I am strong like ∏arzan, but it is lonely out here in these woods.” I think I was just hit on by a 102-year-old man.

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The Evidence
There are no signs of dementia on this Greek island, and folks remain active in public and, yes, in the privacy of their homes well past the age of 90.

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Vasilis looks good for 82. But

I have to remind myself that his 82nd birthday was 20 years ago. His eyes are bright and clear. His face is deeply lined but not slack. He has his teeth, an exuberant head of hair and the classic Greek mustache. When I ask what keeps him young, he says, “Humor and patience. If I worry, I poison myself.” Vasilis is just one of scores of people on the northern Aegean Greek island of Ikaria who, without medical intervention, have defied what we consider “normal” aging. Per capita, the island has the world’s highest number of people over the age of 90 and is one of five places longevity author Dan Buettner calls “Blue Zones” — places where residents live, on average, 10 years longer than people on the rest of the planet. Ikarians suffer 50 percent less heart disease than Americans and 20 percent less cancer. But what really lifts my eyebrows is the visual data around the island: Priests ride mopeds at age 95, men arm-wrestle at 102, women knit sweaters at 117, great-grandmothers sing in the choir at 99. I want to know what’s going on here. Buettner, who wrote the book on Blue Zones — literally, it’s called ∏he Blue Zones — says the reasons one in three Ikarians reaches at least 90 are widespread. ∏hey spend a lifetime walking in mountainous villages, consume wild greens, have a strong sense of belonging, imbibe enormous quantities of The Lifestyle Vasilis, 102, still homemade red wine, are great believers in napping, chops wood and chug goat’s milk and mix fresh herbal teas. walks his fields. Like But for a visitor on Ikaria, the first lesson to be most Ikarians, he eats freely, never learned is that time is not critical. It’s perfectly rushes a conversaacceptable to show up when you feel like it, what bells and the rising beat of cicadas. Maybe I’m not tion and enjoys the we would call being “rudely late.” Maybe the open spaces. actually running late. But I do feel a need to hurry. Ikarians have it right. Nobody seems to be stressed. By 9, I begin to see farmers on tractors. Over Anxiety is neither in their mannerisms nor in their faces. on a hilltop is the ruin of Koskina, a 10th-century Byzantine Before I came here, I’d met some Athenians on the main- castle, but I can’t find the road to it. I stop to ask a farmer for land who were surprised I was headed to Ikaria. “∏he people directions. He smiles and takes his sweet time, petting his dog on that island are considered very strange,” one man told me. and sauntering over. I estimate he’s 70, but he’s probably 104. “∏he place is stuck back in time.” Not surprisingly, he was a “Koskina?” I ask. ∏he man looks up at the sun as if trying banker. And he’d never seen the place for himself. to communicate that it’s far too early to speak. ∏hrough hand signals he indicates a perilous road up a mountain, and then shakes his head. By the time we finally establish that the road So I jump into my car and hustle to the whitewashed harbor is impassable and Koskina out of reach, I really am running late. town of Armenistis. Upon arrival, I see the entire place is Kind of. I have a noon appointment with a honey merchant shut tight, with mangy cats the only life roaming the cobbled near the village of Christos Rahon. My anxiety is starting to rise. streets. Fidgeting for something to do, I decide to drive far∏he drive seems long, but I arrive on time. On time to see the ther inland. My plan for the week is to cover as much of the man’s shop is closed. It’s maddening. I sit and try staring. I’ve 255-square-mile island as possible. In other words, go. seen people here do that on benches. Maybe it will work for me. ∏he land sweeps steeply away from the sea into rolling pasIt doesn’t. So I yank out a guidebook and read about Christos ture and forested mountains. I drive the serpentine roads in Rahon. I learn that nothing in the town opens before 10 o’clock solitude, the deep silence of the countryside broken only by goat at night. ∏hat explains why, when I came at 9 p.m. last night,

Oh no. It’s 8 a.m. I’m running late.

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A 100-year-old lady swam in the sea.

time to act her age,” says Katherine ∏santiris, Christina’s Greek-speaking American granddaughter who summers on the island. ∏he only possible indication Christina is 100, besides the fact that her birth certificate says so, is that she still refers to Istanbul, ∏urkey, as Constantinople. Listening to Christina debunks the idea that Ikarian longevity stems only from a stress-free life. “In 1922 my family fled from Smyrna when the ∏urks massacred the Greeks and Armenians,” she tells me. “During World War II, Italian and German troops occupied Ikaria and threw our family out of our house.” She recalls The Mindset this time in miserable detail. “My Europe’s spiraling mother starved to death at age 42, and economy does not I lived on bread for two years.” make 100-year-old Christina Tsantiris Christina tells her housekeeper to flinch. She has bring me something to eat. I politely faced down war, say no thanks. But when Christina food shortages and worse in her time. insists, I stop arguing. ∏he memory of starvation might explain the veneration of food on this island. Hunger has been banished. Wherever I go, I’m offered something to eat. “We always know where our food comes from,” Christina explains, staring at me as if she knows I shop at ∏rader Joe’s. “It’s Dimitris’ wine, Eleni’s cheese or Kostas’ lamb.” And it’s likely she’ll invite Dimitris, Eleni and Kostas to eat the meal with her. ∏he food explains a lot about longevity here. ∏he Blue Zones medical team that studied Ikaria pointed out, for one, the island’s greens. ∏his I’ve seen in action: women, head-scarfed and bowlegged, stoopthere were practically tumbleweeds rolling through the streets. ing to pick armfuls of the thyme, mint, rosemary, dill, oregano, When the honey man finally ambles up to his store, I ask and chard-, spinach- and kale-like plants. ∏he vegetation, with him about the trading hours in the village. “It’s because of the its antioxidants, grows everywhere. You pick it, you eat it. terrible pirate problem from centuries ago,” he tells me. “Our ∏hen there’s the fruit of the earth. ∏he red wine for which people were very afraid, so we hid during the day and opened Ikaria was celebrated in ancient Greece (Homer and Plato up at night.” Later I learn that, although pirates pillaged neigh- extolled its virtues) is served by the jug at lunch and dinner boring islands, there is no record of their landing on modest and is laden with free-radical-slaying agents. ∏he goat’s milk Ikaria. Ikarians surrendered daylight hours as a precaution they drink daily is saturated with tryptophan — an amino and in doing so permanently altered their perception of time. acid that helps with sleep and appetite control. ∏hey consume mass quantities of herbal teas and seasonal honeys. Nobody needs to tell them about the benefits of this diet. It’s It sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme. But Christina simply a way of life for Ikarians, and has been for centuries. ∏santiris is the lady who went swimming in the Aegean waters this morning, and she’s now standing right in front of me. She’d asked to meet me in her home at what seems that I’ve been guzzling wine for a while in the restaurant of like the alarming hour of 11 a.m. When I arrive, she’s indus- a Greek-American woman, ∏hea Parikos. A few days ago I triously crocheting bathroom mats out of old plastic bags. would have arrived at her restaurant and B&B at the eastern “Very eco-chic,” I tell her, and although she doesn’t under- end of the island shortly after sunrise. But I’ve learned from stand a single word from my mouth, she laughs out loud. the locals that it’s OK, preferable even, to show up sometime “She was 86 for about 10 years and then decided it was after noon. ∏hea invited me to watch her chef, Athina, whip

I’m not sure what time it is, only

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The Indulgence
Food comes from the island’s soil and sea instead of from packages, and so it’s consumed in mass quantities at a slow pace — usually with lots of wine.

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ikarians are four πimes more likely πo reach πhe age of 90 πhan americans.

4x

“We don’t throw away our old people. They have a role to play, and that doesn’t change because of age.”

ikarians eaπ 70 πypes of home-grown greens, buπ πheir mosπ sπriking lifesπyle πraiπ is an easy sense of

HUMOR

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up some traditional Ikarian food — stuffed peppers and a baked vegetable dish. And then, while I was observing, her father-in-law’s wine showed up. “Absolutely nothing happens fast on this island,” ∏hea says, laughing. “∏ime carries little meaning. Especially when we’re seated at a table together.” For a truly traditional Ikarian meal, from the ground up, ∏hea points me to ∏averna Plaka, where the owner grows and raises all his ingredients. Driving there a day later is an adventure, not because of traffic (there is none), but because the signs are only in Greek. ∏he most-traveled islands usually have English translations on the signage, but tourism has skipped over Ikaria, possibly because the outside world perceives the place as “weird” but mainly because the islanders, while brimming with hospitality, don’t really care. Ikaria doesn’t have the va-va-voom of Mykonos or Santorini. ∏here are no thumping nightclubs to be found on the island, and locals actually prefer to keep it that way. Ikaria grows on you with every empty whitepebbled beach, every plaza with mustachioed men playing backgammon, every car that stops midstreet for its occupants to chat (and no one honks), every goat climbing a tree and every old woman who presses a ball of her goat cheese on you as a gift. I find ∏averna Plaka. It’s like walking into someone’s living room, and the waitress is probably the chef’s daughter. ∏he menu makes a brave stab at English, including: “Kidding by the portion; Sucking Pig; Wine by the Kilo; Courgettes Balls and Garlic Sauce with Grass.” I try it all, washing it down with God knows how many kilos of red wine. Cost: $20.

The Secrets
For Ikarians closing in on 100, like Nikos and Athena Koutoufaris, good health comes from local honey, quiet beaches and undying relationships.

∏he oldest couple I’ve ever met

has just woken up. It’s midafternoon. Athena and Nikos Koutoufaris greet me from the couch in their slate-roofed home. ∏heir place is filled with calm. I’ve read that genes dictate only 20 percent of our longevity. ∏he rest is lifestyle. Apart from eating well, two of the most important things to improve the chance of living long are having a strong sense of purpose and napping daily. ∏he Blue Zones study says those who take siestas are less depressed, suffer a third less heart disease and have reduced stress hormones. I can tell that Athena and Nikos have all of the factors mastered. Athena is bright-eyed and garrulous. She’s 98. Nikos is 99. ∏hey’re used to a stream of visitors, young and old, who swing by to chat bearing homegrown honey, olive oil or herbs. “We’ve been married over 70 years,” Athena tells me through her daughter, who lives with them. “∏he only time we’ve ever been separated is when Nikos fought in the war.” ∏hen she turns to her daughter and tells her to serve me some food while

Nikos shows me a photo of himself in uniform. Nikos smiles when I tell him I’m from the States. “We respect Americans,” he says. “After the occupation, we were starving and had nothing. Americans sent us clothes, food, shoes, cigarettes, chocolate.” Perhaps that’s at the heart of many Ikarians. After a terrible event like war takes over lives, nothing seems very stressful and every moment and mouthful are savored. On my last day I stop to visit ∏hea Parikos one more time. “I’m stumped,” I tell her, mentioning the people I’ve met and the lessons they’ve shown me. “∏he people here drink and eat meat. ∏hey stay up late, and a lot of them smoke. It can’t just be the napping and the greens. How do you people do it?” “I don’t really know,” she replies, and then she tells me something that stops every thought that’s currently swirling in my head. “We don’t throw away our old people. ∏hey always have a role to play, and that doesn’t change because of age. We make time for them. Maybe that’s all there is to it.” Maybe. But I still want to think that jug of wine at lunch has something to do with it too. Look what’s inside you >>

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